Archives for posts with tag: landscape design

On this fine summer afternoon, we found ourselves looking for an outdoor activity, one that did not involve manual labor or anything that might be construed as work.  It is not as if we don’t have anything to do—our list of chores is very long and there is never a shortage of things to be done on a Saturday.  But we were in need of some downtime.  So we decided to make a visit to Stonecrop Gardens.

With some dismay, I realized that we have not been here since last fall (see September 16, 2012, part 2).  That means we completely missed spring and what would undoubtedly have been a dazzling display of blossoming trees, daffodils, irises and peonies (luckily, we got to see most of those at home).  On the other hand, while our previous visits have occurred in March, June and September, this is our first trip in July.

We were expecting that in the peak of summer, the colors would be primarily green; there are fewer plants that flower this time of year than in spring and it is much too early (thank goodness!) for fall coloratura.  However, the gardeners and landscape designers at Stonecrop have done an excellent job of diversifying the plantings and we were very happy to find many flowers in bloom.

Most notable is an impressive variety of lilies.  In our neighborhood, the majority of lilies is wild and of the tiger type:  dark orange with darker orange stripes.  In our ornamental garden, we have a bright yellow variety.  Here at Stonecrop, though, the lilies range from pink (both pale and Pepto) to peach to blood red (with yellow stripes) and back to yellow (although a much paler lemon shade, compared to ours).  The petals vary from short and wide to long and narrow (almost spidery in some cases).

Also of note (and as I have noted before) are the leafy groundcovers that fill many of the beds.  In addition to the typical green, we saw purple, yellow and blue (well, bluish) varieties.  And among the green-leafed types, some have variegated leaves with accents of red, yellow or white.

We were happy with the broad spectrum of colors on view.  Even happier were the bees and other pollinators who were busily making their rounds of the beckoning flowers.


Yesterday, we drove up to Saratoga Springs, New York, for a quick getaway, a mini-vacation, a brief respite from the everyday.  We haven’t planned much—our idea is to keep it simple—and spent yesterday afternoon walking up and down the main street in town, Broadway, and taking a nap (I never claimed to be the life of the party) before going out for a delicious pasta dinner at Wheatfields (highly recommended).  The heat wave finally broke and we were actually able to eat outdoors.

One of the things we did plan was a visit this morning to the gardens at Yaddo, an artists’ community founded in 1900 by a wealthy couple who, sadly, lost all four of their children.  Without heirs, they decided to convert their estate into a sanctuary where young artists, writers, composers and other promising creative types could work without interruption or concern for such mundane matters as room and board.

Most of the 400-acre property is off-limits to those who have not applied to the organization, been reviewed by its trustees and found qualified for residency.  However, the gardens, which comprise a formal rose garden and more rustic rock garden, are open to the public on a daily basis.  The gardens are tended by the volunteer Yaddo Garden Association, several of whose members were busily at work during our walk-through.

We were a bit late for the roses which probably peaked about a week ago.  Nonetheless, most of the bushes were still in bloom, even if the flowers were becoming a bit ragged.  I am always amazed by the sheer variety of roses whose flowers exist in seemingly infinite combinations of color, size, shape and scent.  My favorites are the more delicate pinks and peaches, especially the clusters of diminutive tea roses.

The rose garden is carved out of a stand of spruces which shield visitors from the unfortunate presence of the Thruway, only several hundred feet to the east.  Unfortunately, the trees are not dense enough to attenuate the constant drone of trucks and automobiles racing by at 70 miles per hour.  One has to use some effort to imagine oneself at the turn of the last century when the surrounding countryside was less populated and much quieter.

The rock garden, located west of the rose garden and divided from it by a classical colonnade, is somewhat more serene and much more shaded (fewer trees were removed to create it, apparently).  The flora here are much more familiar to me (in appearance if not in name) and include an impressive array of hostas, most of which were in full bloom.  The dense canopy of the woods must have protected them from the merciless sun of the last few weeks.

I don’t usually favor an expedient solution over one which I consider to be better, even if it is not as easy or quick to effect.  Although I’ve come to embrace the idea of good enough, I still feel that sometimes it means only just good enough or, put another way, not as good as it could be.  My parents always told me that if something was worth doing, it was worth doing right.  I took the idea to heart and have lived that way most of my life.

But sometimes what I think might be best, my concept of it, can blind me to other possibilities that could be just as good or even, possibly, better.  As an example, I decided last year that the best way to pave around the planters would be to use some slate and bluestone that was leftover from another project.  My reasoning was that the stone would provide a flat, stable working surface that would be attractive (the coloring would match the pool) and easy to care for.  It would also be putting to good use materials that are currently just taking up space.

And those are still good reasons.  But there are other factors that I did not take into account.  I know from experience that the stone cannot simply be placed on the ground; it is best set onto a layer of sand.  Also, keeping the stones level, especially across joints, is difficult and preventing them from rocking almost impossible.  And unless we were willing to accept irregular edges and large gaps between the stones (we weren’t), we would have to cut them to fit.  This would require that we rent a stone saw and learn how to use it.

In short, there would be more to the project than I had originally thought and as a result, nothing got done.  It turns out that even though the final result might have been the best, the process involved would be far from ideal.  In other words, getting there would have been none of the fun.  Knowing this led to procrastination and delay.

So we reconsidered our options and concluded that ease of installation was more important than the finished product.  And what could be easier than cedar mulch?  It’s a material that we almost always have on hand (we use it to cover the ornamental gardens), it is inexpensive and it comes in convenient 40-pound bags.  Once the ground has been prepared, laying it down is a breeze (well, relatively speaking anyway).

This is not to say that considerable effort will not be involved.  Preparing the ground sounds easy but it means removing sod, probably the most physically demanding gardening activity I know.  On the positive side, we have done plenty of it before and know exactly what to expect.

And best of all, we can get started right away and be finished by the end of the weekend.

There was a nicely-written article in Sunday’s New York Times about using deadlines to motivate work and prevent procrastination (“Need Motivation? Declare a Deadline.”). It’s an interesting—and chilling—topic for me. I don’t think anybody really likes deadlines and most people probably dread them but very little would get done without them. If we had to rely entirely on our wishful thinking about what we’d like to accomplish, we’d have next to nothing to show for it.

I’ve been trying to minimize my exposure to deadlines but I recognize setting them as a motivational tool. And I’m pretty good about meeting self-imposed deadlines, especially when the work involved is important and/or urgent. If it really needs to be done, I’ll usually get it done.

But I’m pretty good at dragging my feet, too. Sometimes, this is because the task at hand is unpleasant and I simply do not want to do it. For example, we are in the process of updating to a new computer. Many people would enjoy this (increased processing speed, more memory, better apps, etc.) but I do not (I find it very disruptive). Consequently, the process has taken a long, long time (and not a little nudging by Rachel). There’s no urgency here, though, so there’s no problem.

Most often, however, my stonewalling is evidence of some internal doubt, an intuitive hesitation brought on by a feeling—not always conscious—that the chosen action might not be the right one. It can be easy to come to a decision based on overwhelming rational criteria but nearly impossible to act on it if I know in my heart that it will not serve.

This can occur when faced with the big decisions in life—career choices, buying a home, raising children—but crops up with the more mundane as well. Last year, for example, I resolved to pave around the planters with the surplus stone we have on hand (see June 10, 2012). I allowed myself until the end of the summer to get it done but despite my apparent (and public) commitment to the idea, the task is still undone.

Reconsidering, I think that what I had proposed to do would have required too much effort to achieve a result that we were not sure was what we wanted. Instead, I will take some very good advice from the Times article, and opt for something that I can actually accomplish even if it is not necessarily the best I can do. In other words, I’ll choose something that is good enough (at least for now) and make getting it done the priority.

We were planning a trip to the city today but an unexpected consequence of Hurricane Sandy is that gasoline is in short supply.  Apparently, many of the stations in New York City and New Jersey are completely depleted and either cannot get deliveries or cannot pump the gas (due to power outages) if they do.  The stations here in town have been getting daily deliveries but shortly afterwards, long lines form and they quickly sell out.  We decided to take public transportation to the city (instead of driving) but went out to investigate the situation farther north.

We found gas in plentiful supply in the next town up.  After filling our tank (not an act of panic; it was less than half-full), we drove home along the river to see what was happening on a sunny fall Sunday.  We found another farmers’ market that had set up in the train station parking lot.  This market has a different set of vendors from our own Saturday-morning market (the baker was the only one who did both) and could come in handy as a back-up.

We also discovered a small park that we had never noticed before (its entrance is on the river-side of the railroad tracks).  It looks to be new and very contemporary in its design (it is not far from Dia:Beacon and shares a similar aesthetic).  The park houses a boathouse (serving a small boat basin) where kayaks are stored.  The structure must have been inundated during Hurricane Sandy.  Two paddlers were emptying the boats of water and debris as we walked by.

The park also includes a pier that juts into the river between the boat basin and what might be called a lagoon.  From there, a path extends south along the railroad tracks.  We didn’t have the energy to hike to its terminus but vowed to return again for another expedition.

Believe it or not (I’m not sure I did), we still had not replanted all of the Siberian irises after our last root-dividing session (see September 15, 2012).  There is no more room in the ornamental garden and after scouting around (again) for suitable new locations, I ended up back at the strip of weeds next to the stone wall where we replanted some irises two weeks ago.  Clearly, this was the place for them.

After two hours of labor that can be summed up by a single punctuated word—rocks!—we are finally finished with the Siberian irises.  When combined with the bearded irises, which we received from friends in exchange for a share of our Siberian ones and which we planted near the patio two weeks ago, we have done everything we need to do with irises for the next few years.

Now, if I was a more conscientious and energetic gardener, I would move on to the lilies and hostas, both of which could benefit from the same treatment we gave the irises.  But I’m not (and am feeling lazy) so they will have to wait.  Maybe next year…

The season is rapidly changing.  Unlike the garden, which changes slowly and gradually, the seasons seem to turn abruptly.  So far in September, we’ve had mostly summery days with one or two fall preview days thrown in for interest.  And then today, a switch was flipped and it is fall.

To celebrate the transition (which I heartily welcome), we made a visit to Stonecrop Gardens.  We haven’t been here since early summer (see June 2, 2012) and had meant to come last week (when the weather was much more summerlike) until our plans changed.  We thought we had missed the summer peak.

Well, it turns out that we missed nothing.  Everything was amazingly colorful and lush, much more so than we expected for mid-September.  The gardeners have clearly been busy the last three months and there were many blooming flowers on display.  The variety of plantings continues to impress me.

They have a particularly good collection of dahlias, for instance, and must have dozens of specimens in different sizes, colors and configurations.

Also of note were the groundcovers (I’m probably using that term imprecisely), the leafy plants that fill in the beds around the more showy flowers.  Some have large leaves, some small; a few have flowers of their own, of different sizes; and most are green but others are veiny and red or gray-blue.  There was very little bare earth to be seen.

And some of the plants had been confused by the cool nights we had earlier in the month:  clustered around a tree were scores of crocuses in full bloom.  They were very pretty but I do not envy them when they realize that winter still lies ahead.

At the end of the day on Labor Day (see September 3, 2012), we were left with a tarp-full of divided but unplanted Siberian irises and two large clumps of irises waiting to be separated.  We were hoping to wake up one morning and find that the remaining work had been done but two weeks later, nothing has changed.  I guess the garden elves have headed north to get an early start on the Christmas season.

We decided that if we didn’t get to it today, it would not get done before winter.  We started by scouting a location for the already-divided plants (they have been out of the ground for two weeks and we wanted to be sure to replant them before we ran out of energy).  We do not have many full-sun locations on our property and there are not that many partially sunny spots either.  After a tour of the possible locations, we selected the narrow strip of ground between the road and a stone wall that marks the edge of our property.

Nearest to the house, the area is paved with gravel; we use it as a pull-out for parking cars.  Beyond that, the border is mostly weed-covered with two or three clusters of daffodils providing a small (and brief) burst of color in spring.

It is also, of course, very rocky.  In fact, it is literally between a rock (wall) and a hard place (the road).  As I started to dig, my shovel was met with the usual clang of resistance.  The rocks were densely packed but luckily, they were not wedged in too tightly.  As I removed each one, I tossed it onto the top of the stone wall.  Two hundred years ago, this is how the wall was originally constructed.

After a half hour of digging, we had cleared an area about 10 feet in length and 18 inches wide.  Despite its rockiness and less-than-ideal location, the soil here is dark and rich.  Apparently, many years of weed growth have not depleted the soil of its organic matter.

Rachel quickly set the divided irises into the excavation and we covered them with loose soil.  As a final step, I sprinkled the ground with a general-purpose fertilizer (to be on the safe side) and watered it in with two cans-full from the hose (which did not quite reach this remote spot).

Next, we moved back to the ornamental garden and the two clumps of irises that remained to be divided.  After our Labor Day experience we knew what had to be done and started right in (we feared that if we stopped to rest, we might lose momentum).  I won’t repeat the details here but we did learn a few important lessons.

First, digging in the garden—even shallow digging—is best done shortly after a rainfall.  When we worked on Labor Day, it had not rained for a week.  The ground was hard and dry and that made the digging difficult and dusty.  Today, after a light rain yesterday, the soil was softer and more cohesive.  Digging still required a lot of effort but it took significantly less hacking with the shovel to get the irises free.

Second, once the clump of irises has been pulled up, trimming their leaves all at once makes separating the roots a lot easier.  On Labor Day, Rachel clipped each divided rhizome individually, a time-consuming last step.  This time around, we used a hedge trimmer to trim all of the irises at once.  Essentially, we gave each clump, still intact, a haircut.

Third, and most significantly, this has to done much more often.  One of the two clumps we divided today was so tightly compacted and so jammed full of rocks and soil that it was next to impossible to split into pieces.  I managed to break the small gardening fork while trying to pry the roots apart and I can understand why some people would be tempted to use a hatchet or axe for the job.  I have heard that some gardeners do this yearly—my hat is off to them—but every two or three years seems like a reasonable interval.

Of course, that last lesson will be the hardest to follow up on.  In two or three years, the irises may not be as compacted as they were today but I will be that much older and less enthusiastic about taking on this onerous chore.

To commemorate Labor Day, we often take on a project that is, well, laborious.  It is not always planned in advance—we do most of our intensive outdoor work on weekends anyway—although we rarely celebrate Labor Day in the traditional way by relaxing and doing nothing.  This year’s back-breaking task:  dividing the Siberian irises.

Why would we want to do this?  Good question.  The irises were a gift from a local stonemason, Mario, who did a lot of work for us about seven years ago.  Part of his work included the formation of our ornamental gardens and when he was done, we had a lot of space to fill.  In addition to being a talented stone worker, Mario has a dark green thumb.  To help get our new gardens started, he brought us many cuttings from his own garden (which is like what you would see at an Italian villa), including the irises, a Japanese maple and sedum (to plant in the crevices of the stone walls he built).

It took a few years for the irises to establish themselves but for the last three years, they have been producing a dense display of purple and white flowers each spring.  The irises are very effective at naturalizing themselves and after seven years have densely filled the areas where we planted them.  However, as their root systems become more and more compacted, they will flower less abundantly.  Typically, Siberian irises form rings of active plants with dead roots at the centers.  Ours were beginning to display this characteristic.

But digging them up, dividing their rhizomes and replanting them ensures that the irises continue to flower profusely.Separating the plants also means that we can spread them out over a larger area (expanding the border that follows the south edge of our main garden, for instance) and transplant them to new locations (along the road, perhaps).  Further, we’ll have enough split rhizomes to share them with our friends in town to whom we promised the plants last year.  We let that season pass before we could get to them so we are overdue.

The task is decidedly labor-intensive and required several steps.  First, we dug up the irises.  Their rhizomes and roots are densely intertwined and form clumps about two feet in diameter.  Removing them is almost as difficult as removing sod but their stems and leaves allowed Rachel to pull up on the irises while I broke the roots free with a shovel.  It took about half an hour of picking and tugging to break each mass free and lug it out of the garden bed.

Next, I broke up the root masses using a small gardening fork and my bare hands.  (Actually, I wore work gloves.)  If we had not let the irises go so long—two to three years is the recommended interval—this part might have required less effort.  But after seven years, the root masses were practically solid.  I used the fork to knock out the trapped soil and rocks and create handholds.  Then, I just grabbed on and pulled.

Slowly and with not a little frustration, I broke small groups of rhizomes free and passed them over to Rachel.  Using shears, she cut off the excess roots and dead portions of the rhizomes, clipped the leaves to a length of about six inches, and stacked the now divided plants neatly on a tarp.  We filled two shopping bags full of irises and delivered them to our friends in the village.

The final step was replanting.  We returned about half of the irises to their starting place and reburying them in the loosened soil was the easiest task of the day.  We spaced them six to eight inches apart and consequently, the area is much less densely-planted than it was when we started.  Given past experience, though, it should fill back in over the next few years.

The remaining half—and the two clumps of irises that we have not yet divided—will have to go somewhere else.  But that is for another labor day (one with a lower case L).